Old Glory proudly displayed out front of our house. Kids running through the park waving flags. The Marine Band playing Sousa on the Mall in Washington. Pinning on our medals and joining other aging veterans as we march down main street accompanied by our high school drum and bugle corps and hundreds of flags. All of those events each June 14 reassure us of the meaning of love of country and our freedom. The Flag Day ceremonies always give me the comfortable feeling that patriotism is alive and well.
Most nostalgic to me, Flag Day is a series of flashbacks in American history as well as throughout my own lifetime of memories. My first memory of flag celebrations was when I tagged along, trying to keep in step with the music, behind my dad. He and a platoon of his fellow World War I veterans marched and sang in a parade in the 1930s. My earliest Flag Day parade memory was that everyone seemed to be waving flags in a sky full of red, white and blue.
As the 1930s ended and the 1940s began, I remember being a platoon leader in my high school cadet corps as we marched in the city’s Flag Day parade. World War II was already devastating Europe and Asia, and among other units in our parade were GIs and sailors from nearby military bases. Their presence gave the day a seriousness that no other parade had done before. The meaning was becoming more important to every American that year, it was just a matter of time before we’d be in the war.
My next memory is my Navy boot camp graduation, which coincidentally happened on Flag Day in 1943, and there were thousands of us in our white uniforms passing proudly passing in review before a grandstand full of relatives and Navy officers. It was an important moment in our young lives, because each of us knew we’d soon be called on to do our part of the war. I recall looking at the flag that day with more pride than I ever had before. But it wouldn’t be the last time.
My most important experiences with the flag were nearly two years later, when I was a crewman aboard a Navy attack transport. As we neared the Japanese home islands in early 1945, we were under frequent attacks by enemy aircraft, particularly the Kamikaze suicide planes. As a talker on an anti-aircraft gun mount, I experienced many close calls. But every time I looked up and saw Old Glory still flying on the mast above us, I felt reassured that, as Francis Scott Key wrote, “through the rockets’ red glare, the flag was still there.”
After we landed our Marines ashore on Iwo Jima, our ship moved in close to the island to support the assault with our heavier guns. several days after the landing, we became aware of the terrible casualties among the young Marines, and did our best to help when the wounded were brought back to our ship for treatment. Then, while I was with a deck crew unloading a Higgins boat full of wounded, one sailor looked over at the island, pointed and shouted, “Look! Up on the mountain. There goes the flag!” Through the haze and smoke, I could barely make out where he was pointing.
Then I saw it, just a tiny piece of white waving on the peak of Suribachi. As I stared, it became more distinct with its faint red stripes and blue field of stars. Seconds later, we were back to our work with the newly-arrived casualties, and didn’t think much about the flag. After all, it was the U.S. Marines who were on that island, and when they take on a task, they get it done. We didn’t know the importance of the flag raising until days later, when Joe Rosenthal’s photo had been picked up from wire transmission by Stateside newspapers and then plastered all over the front pages. When, just a few months later, with the war ended, we marched in victory parades along with platoons of our Marine pals, at that proud moment, I knew the flag meant more to each of us than it ever had before.
I’ve experienced many other moving experiences with our flag since WWII, and still feel a thrill of patriotism every Flag Day when I see it displayed with love and respect. But nothing can ever compare with witnessing one of the most important moments in the history of the Stars and Stripes, and of American history itself. Long may you wave, and Semper Fi.